I was reading Best for Babes’ recent post about moms being hassled or ejected from various venues for breastfeeding. They mention an incident at a Charlotte YMCA, and go on to note that through the years different Ys throughout the country have put the kibosh on nursing in public. It vividly reminded me of my own incident at a Y, which still makes me a little angry after all these years, but which also illustrates how much progress we’ve made.
In 2003, I joined the Y near my house in Durham. My daughter was just shy of four months old, and of course I wound up nursing her when we were there. I described what happened in a letter I wrote to the Executive Director at the time:
As a new member of the Lakewood YMCA and a breastfeeding mother, I would like to know whether your organization has an explicit policy supporting breastfeeding.
I ask this question because of an unfortunate incident during one of my recent visits to the Lakewood facility. I was nursing my daughter in the lobby area when a staff member approached me and asked me to “do that somewhere else.” She expressed particular concern that the high school students would see us, and specifically said it would only be acceptable for me to feed my baby where “no one can see you.” She suggested the locker room. To me, this directive displayed a hostile and fearful attitude toward breastfeeding, treating it as though it were something dirty or perverse, something children shouldn’t be exposed to.
I hope that this is not reflective of the YMCA’s official position on breastfeeding. As you may be aware, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers breastfeed their babies during the first year of life, for optimum health and development. As an organization that promotes health and family closeness, I hope that the YMCA would encourage and support breastfeeding to the greatest extent possible.
If no such supportive policy is in place, I urge you to implement one. If, on the other hand, my recent experience is indicative of your current policy, I ask that you reconsider your position. Breastfeeding mothers are doing the best thing for their babies, and they need sympathy and encouragement. Breastfeeding can be a big challenge, and the last thing nursing mothers need is an implicit message that their behavior is somehow deviant and not fit to be seen in public.
Thank you for your attention. I look forward to hearing from you regarding this issue.
Guess what I heard back – bupkis. I never got any kind of response. And in those days, that was it. It never occurred to me to try to stage a nurse-in. That wasn’t even a thing yet, as far as I know! Nor did it come to mind to contact local media. No one cared enough for this to be news. I was just one mom, on my own. Today, as I read about the immediate community response to the Charlotte incident, and how that prompted the Y to listen and change its policies, I actually got a little misty, thinking of how much that would have meant to me at the time.
No matter how confident, sassy, and assertive a person you are, I think when someone criticizes and evicts you over breastfeeding, you tend to feel extremely vulnerable. I’m so immensely proud and gladdened that breastfeeding mothers and their supporters have come together and lent their collective power to every mom who is harassed and shamed by the ignorant. Because of all of us making some noise about these things, it has even become a news event when a business kicks out a nursing mom. Things are getting better. Moms and babies are more protected. All of you out there standing up for mothers and babies, for nursing being normal, are making real progress. I just want to celebrate this, and remind everyone to keep up the good fight.
Today I was walking on the track at the YMCA, and I was saying in a none-too-quiet voice such things as, “If she gets cold, does her nipple pop out? Because if so, then you could try putting a cold washcloth on it.” It only occurred to me later that people might find that strange and possibly offensive. While I was exercising and listening to tunes on my iPhone, a friend had called me to get help for a mutual friend who just had a baby and needed some breastfeeding support. And nipples are not taboo to me anymore.
A few weeks back, some anonymous person posted a survey on The Straight Dope Message Board. It asked female users to give lots of detailed information about their nipples – size, shape, and color of areolas, flat or inverted nipples, and so on. My first reaction to this was to click through to the survey results to learn about the variety of nipple shapes and sizes, and wondering what the most common traits were. Nipples are interesting – did you know that (very rarely) some moms have nipples that are too big for their newborn to latch onto? Or that inverted nipples can often be everted through suction, but some have a tough band of connective tissue holding them in? Or that the little bumps on the areola are actually glands that secrete an oily substance that keeps the nipples from drying out, while also providing a scent cue for newborns to find the nipple? Do you realize how much of the nipple/areola is pulled into the baby’s mouth during nursing? Nipples are amazing, and not just in the way our culture normally thinks of them. So anyway, I was kind of fascinated at this cool project until I looked at some of the thread responses under the survey. Responses such as, “What is wrong with you, you perv?” and “The level of detail you’re asking for, especially from complete strangers, is truly creepy.” Finally I realized that this was some dude with a nipple paraphilia asking inappropriate sexual questions. Oh right. Nipples are just sexual, to most people.
Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that nipples and breasts are a sexual thing too. It’s just that for me, they’ve gotten to the same place as other female body parts that used to be considered too sexually inflammatory to expose, such as knees. I can look at Sofia Vergara and I don’t think, “Hmm, she probably could use a rolled washcloth for support since she has heavy breasts,” but rather, “Wow, that woman is sex personified!” It’s just that breasts aren’t necessarily sexual to me anymore. They have different import depending on their context.
Another case in point: I recently illustrated my unassisted childbirth post with a picture of a woman giving birth without anyone hovering around her or catching the baby. And oh yeah, I realized quite a bit after posting, she is totally naked, with her breasts right out there. I briefly wondered if I should change it, because some people might be offended – something that truly had not occurred to me in the slightest while I was choosing the picture and putting up the post.
So I was thinking, if I’ve become totally inured to nipples, perhaps the Percy Pecksniffs and Prunella Prudes of the world could get over themselves, learn a little about breastfeeding, and get used to moms nursing in public. Sure, it might feel uncomfortable at first. You might feel afraid that you’ll accidentally see a flash of nipple when you encounter a mom nursing. It’s OK – you can get through it. It will become normal as more women nurse for longer periods, and refuse to be shut up in their homes, and you will get inured to it too.
If you absolutely cannot get over your offense at seeing women nurse in public, here are some tips for reducing the problem:
1. Plan ahead. If you’re planning to visit someplace that might attract new mothers, such as a park or a discount store, try to time your visit so that you’re less likely to be there at the same time as a nursing mother. Midnight is good.
2. Practice in front of a mirror. At first, your shock may show plainly on your face, so try sitting in front of a mirror and picturing a nursing mother. Keep trying until your expression stays neutral. You can also try having a friend or your spouse watch you and provide helpful comments.
3. Dress appropriately. Try wearing a scarf or a top that has a hood. That way, if you encounter a nursing mother, it’s simple to pull the fabric up over your eyes, or to pull the hood forward to act as blinders so you can easily avert your eyes and not suffer any peripheral vision of a nursing baby.
4. Be discreet. Avoid calling attention to yourself, and there will be no problem. If you’re ostentatious about your disapproval, you’re just inviting a confrontation.
5. Find a private place. If you absolutely can’t avoid voicing your discomfort with public nursing, there are plenty of appropriate places. Go to the nearest changing room and let out your feelings. Almost every establishment has convenient public bathrooms where you can have total seclusion while you vent. If all else fails, go out to your car – it’s a little inconvenient, but well worth it to avoid making a scene.
By following these simple steps, you can make sure that public nursing never leads to ugly confrontations or public relations battles, and everyone will be much happier.